by Andrew O’Hagan
Published by McLelland & Stewart
(Review originally published, February, 16, 2007, The Globe
and Mail, Toronto)
David Anderton, the central character in Andrew O’Hagan’s third novel, is an
Oxford-educated, middle-aged Catholic priest, abruptly posted to a small diocese
in Ayreshire, Scotland. He’s become dimly aware that he’s adrift emotionally
and possibly spiritually. If ever a man needed a sabbatical, it is he, but his
new duties as school chaplain and parish priest won’t allow him introspection
time. He prefers fine wines and a stroll through his rose garden to visiting
his parishioners, who resent the bookish self-absorption poking through his folksiness.
They can smell his brokenness — and his Englishness — a mile off. They’ve endured
a snootful of disfunction already in the discouraged youth among them— petrol-sniffing
skateboarders with tattoos and attitude, cross-addicted to ecstasy and despair.
As school chaplain, Father David comes into regular contact with these teens,
and is drawn to one feral pair in particular, Mark and Lisa, like a moth to
a disposable lighter. Two insightful women in Anderton’s life attempt to educate
and protect him. “Always trust a stranger” his mother advises. “In this life,
it’s the people you know who let you down.” David’s problem is that he can’t
distinguish which is which.
His housekeeper, Mrs. Poole, warns him about the inhabitants of her bleak
industrial town: “Most of these people wouldn’t give you ... the shine off
their sweat.” Father David nods along, but doesn’t like to think ill of others.
He needs to feed his craving to move among these young toughs, listen to their
talk, offer them counsel, temper their excesses and, if he can, be a force
for good. He’s voraciously naive about Mark and Lisa, smiling at their anger
and their bitterness, confident that he can fraternise without risk of corruption.
A pebble at his window is all it takes to lure him out to play.
His duties begin to bore him and Mrs. Poole is quick to notice. “You have
changed, Father. You don’t prepare for your Masses any more. You don’t listen
to the parishioners ...”
“I’ve not gone anywhere, Mrs. Poole.”
“Maybe you have ... What’s that hair gel doing on the bathroom shelf?”
he done? Nothing yet. Except by now we know he’s gay and, well, gay priests
befriending troubled youth ... Is it another of those stories?
Father David’s narration throws a threatening foreshadow: “Again and again,
I wonder why I didn’t talk to myself ... I couldn’t stop going forward, ignoring
whatever scraps of wisdom were left to me in the twilight world of that strange
The reader struggles not to judge. We know of his earlier loss, the death
of his first and last lover, Conor, back in his Oxford student days, a constant
sorrow the man still carries: “I hear his sacred heart and see his eyes closing
as he falls asleep. And I say: be near me. ‘The world is rowdy and nothing
is certain ... True love is what God intends.”
This, though, as a rationale for pursuing even a platonic friendship with
Mark, is sketchy. Father David is fifty-six, for starters, and Mark’s about
fifteen. Appearances have a ton of substance in this narrow Ayreshire town.
Father David rapidly overdraws both on the community’s trust and his young
friends’. He must be made to pay. And pay he does.
Sitting in his rose garden trampled flat by the mob ... “I absorbed for a
while the ruin of peace and the rising scent of lunacy ... I had met their
worst fears and prejudices ... the Crown now had its bogeyman and its spot
on the news.’
Father David’s always been interested in the telescope — an instrument that
appears to bring distant things close. But he has yet to close the distance
between the life he’s chosen and his unfinished sense of himself.
“You always had a touch of the victim,” says the bishop who’d assigned him
to Dalgarnock. ‘You’ve always been an actor, David.”
He confesses to his mother: “I’m guilty of something — of many things, perhaps,
but not of what they say.”
“The times are hysterical,” she says, and she’s right.
Painful events force him to acknowledge the arrested part inside himself.
What finally emerges is a suggestion of the freedom that can only beckon to
a man who’s burned every bridge he’s built.
Andrew O’Hagan, born in Glascow in 1968, is the author of two novels, Personality
and Our Fathers, as well as the non-fiction work, The
Missing. Be Near Me is
an exquisitely written portrait of ambiguity in a time that’s much blighted
with intolerance. This novel pushes black and white aside and insists on a
diligent and unwavering examination of grey. Lest that sound bleak, O’Hagan
is a formidable and witty stylist who never puts a foot wrong. His delicious
and democratic ear is as adept at pleasuring us with the dialect of yobbos
as that of Oxford dons. He refuses to simplify or judge any of his characters,
wrapping his pen around the most vulnerable and readily stereotyped in order
to slow the reader’s fast-twitch judgements to a walk.
Society is adept at joining the dots into a noose. Sometimes this is wise.
This profound book invites us to search for another shape instead.
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